BLOOMINGTON – When Haydon Whitehead first heard the word “Indiana” he thought it was the name of a city.
That was years ago, before the 24-year old Australian punter made his first trip to the United States in December 2016 for his official visit to IU.
Things were more uncertain then.
Whitehead, now in his third year in Bloomington as IU's starting punter, still harbored concerns about whether a college scholarship offer would result from his training with Prokick Australia.
The development program was started in 2007 to help transition Australian athletes to become American football kickers and punters. Whitehead fit the desired clientele perfectly, having played Australian rules football for 15 years.
But the switch in sports (which came after Whitehead's brother started playing American football as a quarterback) has paid off for the Hoosier newcomer.
He's landed 70 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line over his 35 games and also has 17 career punts of 50 or more yards, giving head coach Tom Allen plenty of reason to want him back for a sixth year of eligibility next season (Whitehead previously went to university in Australia for two years).
Confirmation of that extra year of eligibility from the NCAA came earlier in November, completing a process that included Whitehead recovering a lot of old documents.
“It felt like a little bit a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Whitehead said.
“He does not just do a great job as a punter, ... but just his leadership and his work ethic and the way he does everything every day is just a huge part of our culture,” Allen said.
Whitehead's extended stay in Bloomington clears things up for the IU program in terms of a timeline for replacing him on special teams (he serves as the holder on extra points and field goals), and also gives Whitehead more time to continue his assimilation to American culture.
Through the smattering of media appearances made by Whitehead, he's admitted to missing certain elements of his native culture.
Items range from “a good meat pie with ketchup” to the popularity of the sport of cricket on the continent.
The holiday season also brought change.
College football scheduling means Thanksgiving falls on the Thursday before the Old Oaken Bucket game between Indiana and Purdue, keeping Whitehead in Indiana for the week.
He said Thanksgiving is the only American holiday he's experienced without an Australian equivalent.
Whitehead's first couple Thanksgivings were spent with fifth-year kicker Logan Justus, who is from McCordsville, and his family.
Last year Whitehead spent it with his girlfriend, who's from Fishers.
Each experience helped Whitehead get more accustomed to the particularly American celebration.
“I didn't really know what the holiday was about, what people eat, all that sort of stuff,” Whitehead said. “(You) get to sit there and eat a lot of great food, so can't really complain about it.”
Like many Americans, Whitehead tries to watch some of the NFL games played on Thanksgiving Day, although he also views the holiday as a chance for a brief respite from sports.
He is set to graduate in December from IU's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and recently applied for a master's program in safety management within IU's School of Public Health.
It's a chance to continue his education while adding another offseason in the weight room, something critical should Whitehead pursue an NFL career.
It also guarantees a fourth Thanksgiving for Whitehead in the United States and a fourth Old Oaken Bucket game, two experiences he's now quite familiar with.
Old Oaken Bucket Game
Indiana at Purdue
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette
Records: Indiana (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten); Purdue (4-7, 3-5)
Radio: 1250 AM, 1380 AM, 100.9 FM